AS THE REGULAR season comes to a close this weekend in Starkville with a three-game series against Mississippi State, USC baseball coach Chad Holbrook finds it hard to complain about his team’s season.
He’s got a point.
The Gamecocks, who are ranked No. 14 in Baseball America’s Top 25, are 16-10 in the SEC, having won six of nine conference series, four with sweeps. Granted, they were swept three times themselves, but they did win two-of-three from No. 2 LSU and have the league’s fourth-best record, which will earn them a first-round bye in the SEC tournament if they hold on to that spot this weekend against the No. 24 Bulldogs (37-15).
They went 10-2 over the four pre-conference weekend series, with losses to Liberty and No. 17 Clemson, although they did win the series against the Tigers. And the Gamecocks have posted an 11-2 record in mid-week games — the losses came to Furman and Gardner-Webb on the road — with one left to play Tuesday night against Presbyterian.
For a team that no longer boasts Michael Roth, Matt Price and Christian Walker and dealt with a string of injuries this season, Holbrook will take it.
“We’ve done some really good things, and we’ve handled adversity the right way,” the first-year USC coach said. “For that reason, I’m very proud of our guys. Have we let some games get away that I want back? Yeah, we have. But we’ve also played our tails off when we’ve had some guys out of the lineup.”
Along the way, Jordan Montgomery and Tyler Webb, center fielder Tanner English, left fielder Graham Saiko and catcher Dante Rosenberg have missed time for the Gamecocks. But Holbrook likes how they’ve weathered the storm, and he is looking forward to taking a fully staffed club into postseason play.
“Hopefully, down the stretch we’ll be healthy, but that doesn’t guarantee we’ll play our best baseball,” he said.
He remains cautious because that’s what coaches have to do in the SEC. Holbrook knows his team could hit a wall against Mississippi State, just as it did against Arkansas, Florida and Vanderbilt. But he hopes to carry the momentum of a sweep against struggling Georgia into the final three conference games.
USC leads Mississippi State and Ole Miss by 2½ games for fourth place, which exempts a team from the opening-day single-elimination round of the SEC tournament. That means a win by USC or a loss by either of those two schools clinches a top four spot.
“At least we created a little bit of cushion for ourselves. Going to Mississippi State is no easy task. They’re very, very good at home. It’s going be a tall order for us to go down there and win the series, which we’re going to certainly try to do,” Holbrook said.
He would like to see some of the same pitching, hitting, defense and base-running that he witnessed against Georgia.
“We can do some things better here or there, but as far as putting together all facets of the game, I thought we were very good this weekend,” he said
He looks at his team’s offensive numbers and sees real improvement over last season’s numbers. The .285 batting average and .377 on-base percentage are better than the .265/.352 in 2012. The 43 homers, a figure that leads the SEC, in 51 games already tops the 42 hit in 69 games last season. And USC’s six runs per game are a full run better than last season.
“I felt like we had a group who knew what a good at-bat was,” he said. “As we sit here today, we’ve done some nice things offensively.”
The Gamecocks definitely are in a position to win 40 games and reach the NCAA tournament for the 14th consecutive season. While a top eight national seed may be a bit of a long shot with a No. 11 RPI, they’ll certainly be a regional host.
That’s when the real action starts. And that’s how teams really are judged.